We live in the Age of Knowledge where information, big data and innovative ideas form the main source of economic growth—way more important than land, labour, money, or other material resources.
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is being re-read: Knowledge is the new wealth of nations, and the main foundation of their power.
After all, it is yet another English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), who told us in his Meditationes Sacrae (1597) that “knowledge is power”.
Inexorably, the rise of China in the age of knowledge as one of the world’s top two wealthiest nations and a superpower in every aspect of the word has set off a new surge of foreign interest in Africa, dubbed the “New Scramble”.
Despite myriad doomsday scenarios woven around the new scramble, the influential Economist magazine (March 2019) recently predicted that the continent could actually emerge the winner in the rush, and perhaps claim the 21st century as pax-Africana (after pax Britannica and pax-Americana in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively).
It is with this in mind that on April 10, 2019, I joined fellow African academics from across the continent and their Chinese counterparts to inaugurate a new China-Africa institute (CAI) in Beijing, China.
Launched under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which has working agreements with participating African institutions, the initiative is Africa’s surest pathway to gaining the commanding heights of knowledge—and power in a globalising but turbulent world.
The inauguration of the Institute comes weeks ahead of the Second Belt and Road Forum to take stock of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s vehicle of channelling public goods and remaking the world order.
China’s development assistance is consciously aimed at stemming what American scholar, Joseph Nye Jr. has christened in a January 9, 2017 article as “the Kindleberger Trap”. Charles Kindleberger, one of the intellectual architects of the Marshall Plan— officially the European Recovery Programme (ERP), in which America gave over $12 billion (equivalent to nearly US$100 billion today) in economic assistance to help rebuild Western European economies after the devastation of World War II—argued rather cogently that America’s failure to provide global public goods after it had replaced Britain as the leading power gave birth to the disastrous decade of the 1930s, the collapse of the global system into depression, genocide and world war. China’s academics feel if their country makes the same mistake and ignore the world, their own future is uncertain.
Undesirably, the new Institute is born into a world where debate on Sino-African relations is no more than a dialogue of the deaf. But, beyond the claims that China is Africa’s new colonial power, Sino-Africa relations is still work in progress in which intensified people-to-people relations can lead to a China-Africa community of peace and prosperity. It is in the light of this that the Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter of congratulation during the launch of the new Institute, throwing China’s full weight behind this Sino-Africa knowledge-based initiative.
It was during his opening speech at the China-Africa Summit in Beijing on September 3, 2018 that Xi unveiled the idea of establishing the Institute within the people-to-people exchange” pillar, one of the eight areas in FOCAC Action Plan, which stresses enhancing mutual learning between Chinese and African civilisations. To realise this historic intellectual mission, the new institute must be different. It has to be based on the rejection of confrontational and polarising renditions of relations within and between human civilisations—now pushed to a tragic boiling point by the upsurge of populism globally, isolationism (exemplified by the Brexit) and protectionism signified by raging trade wars.
The institute has to generate counter-narratives to debunk and discard doomsday theories such as Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization”; Graham T. Alison’s “Thucydides Trap” or Robert Kaplan's “Coming Anarchy”, which exploit social differences rather than connections to set up civilisations and peoples against each other.
It has to help re-engineer an inclusive story of human civilisation at a time when globalisation is erroneously seen as triumph of neo-liberalism, or the end of history. This calls for the production of knowledge and evidence-based research to underpin policies that build roads and bridges not walls within and between communities and civilisations.
Besides producing knowledge to underpin action by FOCAC and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Institute has to help reconcile the Chinese dream condensed in the two Centenary Goals and the African dream envisaged in the African Agenda 2063 as a solid foundation for peaceful development.
It has to explore innovative ideas of advancing people-to-people relations and dismantling the extant architecture of global knowledge that divides our world. The new institute also has to curve its niche in a world dominated by a thick labyrinth of Centres for African Studies, over 85 per cent of them in Western universities, and specialised think tanks such as the China Africa Research Institute (CARI) at the John Hopkins University.
As its historic mission, the Institute has to unmask and discredit the accepted lazy, unilinear and exclusive history of human civilisation as starting with Ancient Greece, which begets Rome, which begets Christian Europe, which begets the Renaissance, which begets the enlightenment, and which begets liberal democracy and the industrial revolution and the West’s global hegemony. In this configuration, globalisation is deceptively seen as humanity’s inexorable great exodus deeper into westernisation.
In large measures, this invented and exclusive myth of human civilization is feeding the embers of Right-wing populism in the West and violent extremism in non-Western civilizations
Professor Kagwanja is former government adviser and currently CEO of the Africa Policy Institute. This article is extracted from a paper presented in Shanghai during the inauguration of the China-Africa Institute in Beijing on April 10-11, 2019.